Report to Congress on Turkey, U.S. Relations

August 17, 2022 8:50 AM

The following is the Aug. 5, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations In Brief.

From the report

U.S. relations with Turkey take place within a complicated environment and with Turkey in economic distress. Existing U.S.-Turkey tensions that worsened after a failed 2016 coup in Turkey—including ongoing disagreements over Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s 2019 procurement of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air defense system—have raised questions about the future of bilateral relations. Nevertheless, U.S. and Turkish officials emphasize the importance of continued cooperation and Turkey’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The following are major factors in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

Erdogan’s rule and Turkey’s economic challenges. Many observers voice worries about President Erdogan’s largely authoritarian rule. In late 2021, an ongoing currency crisis accelerated after he installed a central bank governor who lowered interest rates, generating major domestic concern about inflation (the official annual figure was nearly 80% in July 2022) and the country’s future financial stability. Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 2023, and public opinion polls suggest that Erdogan may be vulnerable to defeat. Some observers debate whether (1) free and fair elections could take place, (2) opposition parties can attract support across ideological lines, and (3) Erdogan would cede power after an electoral loss.

Turkey’s strategic orientation. Traditionally, Turkey has relied closely on the United States and NATO for defense cooperation, European countries for trade and investment, and Russia and Iran for energy imports. Turkey’s ongoing economic struggles highlight the risks it faces if it jeopardizes these ties. A number of complicated situations in Turkey’s surrounding region affect its relationships with the United States and other key actors, as Turkey seeks a more independent foreign policy. These include Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Syria’s civil war (during which more than 3.6 million refugees have come to Turkey), and other challenges involving Greece, Cyprus, and Libya. Since 2021, Turkey has made some headway in easing tensions and boosting trade with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened challenges Turkey faces in balancing relations with the two countries, with implications for U.S.-Turkey ties. Turkey has not joined sanctions against Russia, with which it has close trade and energy ties, likely because it hopes to minimize spillover effects to its national security and economy. The movement of some Russian assets and business operations to Turkey has caused some Western concern about possible Russian sanctions evasion. However, U.S. and Turkish interests in countering Russian revisionist aims may have converged, as Turkey has worked in parallel with other NATO countries in strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities. Turkey has sold several Turkish-origin Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine as part of deepening bilateral defense cooperation, and the drones appear to have had some success against Russian military targets. These reported successes have bolstered the TB2’s already strong reputation from conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, increasing the demand for Turkish defense exports, as well as opportunities for Turkey to build broader ties with a number of countries. Under Turkey’s authority to regulate access to the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreux Convention, it has generally barred Russian and Ukrainian warships from transiting the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, drawing statements of support from U.S. officials. Turkey also has advised other countries’ naval vessels to avoid the Straits, leading some observers to raise questions about security and freedom of navigation for other Black Sea countries, and about NATO’s role in the region.

Swedish/Finnish NATO accession and Syria. In June 2022, Turkey reached agreement with Sweden and Finland to end Turkey’s delay of their formal NATO accession process. Sweden and Finland agreed to address Turkish objections to external support for individuals or groups that Turkey considers to be connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Kurdish acronym PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization), including a Syrian Kurdish group helping the anti-Islamic State coalition. However, President Erdogan has warned that Turkey’s final approval of Swedish and Finnish NATO membership could depend on whether the two countries extradite certain individuals to Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey has publicly discussed a new military operation in Syria aimed at displacing PKK-linked Syrian Kurds from areas near its border, but U.S. and Russian concerns may affect whether and how such an operation occurs.

U.S.-Turkey arms sales issues (including F-16s). Turkey’s S-400 acquisition from Russia has had significant repercussions for U.S.-Turkey relations, leading to Turkey’s removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and U.S. sanctions on Turkey’s defense procurement agency. The continuing U.S.-Turkey impasse over the S-400 or other issues could prevent or complicate major Western arms sales to Turkey. In April 2022, the Biden Administration reportedly notified Congress informally of its intent to upgrade Turkey’s aging F-16 fleet, and President Biden expressed support in June for the upgrades and new F-16 sales to Turkey, in the context of enhancing Turkey’s military capabilities as a NATO ally at a time of renewed tension with Russia. Some Members of Congress continue to express opposition to major arms sales to Turkey, with Turkey-Greece tensions as one factor informing the debate.

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